One impressive feast

11.28.08
Leonidas Kavakos
The Globe & Mail

TORONTO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

Leonidas Kavakos, violin

Andrew Davis, conductor

At Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto on Wednesday

At first blush, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's Wednesday program seemed indigestible: a Hindemith overture, followed by Brahms's Violin Concerto in D, and Franck's Symphony in D Minor, two of the meatier works of their respective genres. And indeed, it could have been indigestible had it not been for conductor Andrew Davis, soloist Leonidas Kavakos and the orchestra itself, which was at its most alert and responsive.

These advantages turned the Hindemith into a lark and the Brahms into a kind of epiphany with only one arguable flaw. The Franck was still a post-Wagnerian headache, but a headache with Tylenol.

The overture - to Hindemith's opera Neues vom Tage (News of the Day) - was crisp, witty and remarkably fresh under Davis's baton.

The Brahms concerto brought Greek violinist Kavakos to the TSO for his second visit. He is proving to be one of the great violinists of his generation, a Dionysian on a par with Canada's Apollonian James Ehnes. Indeed, it is irresistible to compare these tall, elegant, commanding players, each at the peak of his powers.

To begin with, both play impeccably in tune. Every note, however briefly sounded, in however swift a context, is touched exactly in its centre and perfectly in relation to the harmonic fabric. To imagine these two players joining in the Bach Double Concerto is enough to make the hairs on the back of the neck stand on end. Then, neither has any apparent technical weakness of any kind. What each of them plays is faultlessly managed, however exacting.

Where they differ is in temperament. When Ehnes, 32, played the Tchaikovsky concerto earlier this season, he turned that warhorse into a Pegasus, giving it wings and an elegance of form I had never suspected in this music.

When Kavakos, 41, played the Brahms on Wednesday, he brought rare spaciousness, tenderness and passion to Brahms's superb construction. He animated everything and seemed to find his motivations deep in his own emotions. His was a Brahms of long-ravelled phrases, brilliant arabesques, stratospheric, eerily resonant pianissimi, close-held personal confidences. The slow movement had an almost shy tenderness. The Hungarian finale had an unrestrained, bow-shredding vehemence.

My only cavil came in the first movement's cadenza, which was too stretched, too hubristically brandished, too turned toward sheer playing and away from Brahms. Kavakos did play it gorgeously, but you realized how irritating it had been when Brahms returned for those heavenly final phrases, which Kavakos played like an angel.

Davis, one of the most intuitive orchestral accompanists in the business, led the orchestra in both Ehnes's Tchaikovsky and Kavakos's Brahms. What I would like now, to carry the comparison further, is to hear him conduct Ehnes in the Brahms and Kavakos in the Tchaikovsky. In the meantime, many congratulations to the TSO for bringing two such fabulous violinists to town in the same season.

The Franck symphony brought out a different best side in Davis.

As an organist and an experienced opera conductor, he understood this music. He used Franck's visionary scoring - so wonderful for the brass and winds, so entrancing in the long peroration for cor anglais and French horn in the middle movement - to colour and explain Franck's coiling, tireless, enervating chromaticism. And he and the orchestra really brought off this unique, problematic symphony - although I have to admit my head had begun to hurt by the end.